Despite the association of the rainbow with the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic, the rainbow flag has been generally synonymous with support for the LGBTQ+ community for several decades, and it has a rich and poignant history.
In 1978, the artist Gilbert Baker (1951-2017), a gay man, veteran, and drag queen, first designed the rainbow flag, and later described the task as ‘the most important thing I would ever do’. He was urged to do so by Harvey Milk (1930-78), one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US, in order to create a symbol of pride for the LGBTQ+ community. Tragically, Milk was assassinated by a deranged city supervisor in 1978, making him a gay martyr.
Baker explained his choice of making his symbol a flag specifically by saying: ‘Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, this is who I am!’
The flag was first flown on June 25, 1978, for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade; Baker and a team of volunteers made the first batch by hand, and proudly waved them themselves. The flag was widely adopted as the symbol of gay pride in 1994 as Baker made a mile-long version to be carried along New York’s Fifth Avenue during the annual Gay Pride Parade to mark the 25th anniversary event of the Stonewall Riots.
Now, the symbol has become ubiquitous at Pride parades and other LGBTQ+ Pride events, partly due to the vibrancy and lack of shame associated with the flag’s bright colours, but also because of the rich symbolism behind its design. Nowadays, the flag features six colours (red, orange, yellow, green, indigo and violet), but originally included eight (with the additional hot pink and turquoise).
The meaning which Baker attributed to the shades highlights the depth and richness of gay culture:
- Hot pink = Sex
- Red = Life
- Orange = Healing
- Yellow = Sunlight
- Green = Nature
- Turquoise = Magic/Art
- Indigo = Serenity
- Violet = Spirit
Baker never got rich off the back of his design because he consciously chose not to copyright it, thus allowing everyone to reproduce and use it to express pride in their identity. This act perfectly encompasses why the flag is so important to so many people: it’s something for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community to cherish and fly joyfully, to assert their validity and express their love for both life and each other.